The less said about last weekend the better, as Toronto FC’s loss in Kansas City was a desperate disappointment for a team looking to challenge the upper echelons of the Eastern Conference.
Losing is part of the game, but giving away a result with two penalty kicks inside the first half hour is a horrible way to handicap oneself before the challenge has barely begun. TFC has reiterated that they are not yet true challengers, but must battle for the other three spots available for this season’s playoffs.
The 4-1 loss stung; made worse by a Columbus win that pulled them within two points of TFC’s third spot – though Toronto still have a pair of matches in hand.
Now that defeat is in the past and the next five-match stretch provides ample opportunity to make up for the disappointment, with each game against Eastern Conference opponents below Toronto in the standings – a great chance to solidify that third spot before taking a break with a trio of clashes against Western Conference foes.
Those five matches will be bookended with games against Chicago - the visit of New England and a home-and-away series with Philadelphia in-between – beginning on Saturday when the Fire make their way to BMO Field under the sights, sounds, and smells of The Canadian National Exhibition.
These games are always fun, but what to make of this week’s enemy?
The Fire have struggled to find wins this season with just four to their name, but they also seldom lose – tied with Kansas City for the fewest in the East on six – thirteen draws filling out their 23 matches, which sees them enter the match on 25 points in ninth place in the East.
Don’t let that lowly position fool, they will be a challenge for a Toronto side still finding their way; though the two met just seven weeks ago and much of what was written then still rings true (Parts One and Two), a closer look at the Chicago Fire is in order….
Chicago find themselves on the outside looking in, but given the tightly-packed nature of the East, they sit just three points shy of New York, the current holders of that fifth and final playoff spot in the East.
When the two met back at the start of July, it heralded a busy spell for each; Chicago has in fact been the busier of the two, with twelve matches to TFC’s eleven since, largely due to their continued participation in the US Open Cup.
The 1-1 draw between the clubs in Chicago began an unbeaten run for the Fire that would stretch to four matches – continuing with 1-1 draws in Kansas City and at home against Philadelphia either side of a 0-1 win in New England, before a thumping 5-1 loss in San Jose in a forgettable midweek match ended the streak. That period also saw them into the semifinals of the Open Cup with a 1-3 win in Atlanta interspersed amongst the league matches.
They would lose to 0-2 to Tottenham in a Saturday night friendly mere days after TFC fell to Spurs, before returning to league play the following Wednesday in a dour scoreless affair against Vancouver.
A 1-1 draw against Columbus would follow that weekend – Mike Magee giving the Fire the lead from the penalty spot in the first half, only for Federico Higuain to level for the Crew mere seconds after the restart - and a week later they would pick up their first win in four, 1-0 over New York – Mike Magee again nabbed the go-ahead goal in the waning minutes of the first half, pouncing on rebound after Luis Robles saved his penalty kick.
Heavy legs showed again three days later in Seattle, their cup run ended with a 6-0 hammering at Seattle and three days after that they would fall once more, losing 1-0 in Montreal on a late Marco Di Vaio strike, the Italian finding the winner in the 84th minute after a hard-fought contest.
A much-needed week of rest will have them recharged and ready to challenge TFC on Saturday.
Chicago have just one win in their last six matches, but only two losses – as is their wont, three draws fill out that six. Looking further back, those same two losses are their only defeats in their last nine, two more draws and a win completing the record.
Their thirteen draws already this season, with eleven matches remaining, has them eyeing the all-time record, which sits at sixteen.
July 2 Chicago 1: Toronto 1
Toronto began the match well taking the game to the Fire, only for a controversial red card – shown to Luke Moore for an aerial challenge with Chris Ritter – saw them reduced to ten men in the 29th minute. The card would be rescinded under appeal afterwards, but that would not help at the time.
Despite the obstacle, TFC would take the lead before half-time, when Jackson was left completely unmarked at the back-post to nod in a Jermain Defoe cross from the right in the 42nd minute.
Harrison Shipp would equalize for Chicago in the 56th minute, walking in from the left to hit a shot that beat Joe Bendik after taking a slight deflection. Chicago would apply pressure throughout the remaining half-hour, but TFC held firm, seeing out the 1-1 draw.
Frank Yallop has been desperately seeking reinforcements to bolster his side as they press for the playoffs. Chicago has recently acquired a quartet of players – signing former Chivas forward Matt Fondy, acquiring Sanna Nyassi from Montreal in exchange for Dilly Duka, adding Romanian midfielder Razvan Cocis, and most recently, former TFC striker Robert Earnshaw.
Designated player Juan Luis Anangono was banished on loan to LDU Quito for six months. They’ve also been chasing the signing of American International Jermaine Jones, but that potential move has yet to transpire.
Yallop has also tinkered with his lineup, fielding Jeff Larentowicz at centre-back for three league matches and in Seattle, before returning him to his proper midfield spot on the weekend.
Their only injury concern for Saturday is Patrick Nyarko, who has been unavailable for some time with a knee sprain.
As such, their projected lineup is as follows: Sean Johnson in goal; from right to left – Lovell Palmer, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Bakary Soumare, and Gonzalo Segares across the back; Alex, Jeff Larentowicz, Matt Watson, and Harrison Shipp will play through the midfield; with Razvan Cocis playing off of Mike Magee up top.
There are plenty of possible amendments to be made to that eleven. Patrick Ianni played on the weekend against Montreal, but Soumare was excellent against New York and appears to be available, perhaps rested after featuring in the midweek destruction at Seattle.
Greg Cochrane also featured in Montreal, taking over Segares’ spot at left-back; Segares too played both against New York and in Seattle, so should be rested and ready to resume come Saturday.
Tottenham loanee Grant Ward has looked very good in spurts and is a potential starter on the right-side of midfield – Alex has seen a lot of minutes of late and could be due for a rest, or could swap to the left in place of Shipp. Or Cocis could drop into the central midfield alongside Larentowicz, though Yallop seems to like Watson’s energy in that area. Nyassi is another wide midfield option, though more likely to play a role from the bench, injected fresh legs.
Up top, Quincy Amarikwa and Magee had a solid partnership that has dwindled in productivity of late, but his energy, against a former team, will likely play a role. And then there is Earnshaw, who no doubt would love to see the pitch against his former employers.
Chicago, despite scoring just eight goals in their last seven league matches, have plenty of weapons to cause Toronto’s back-line problems – especially given how fragile TFC looked in Kansas City. Of some concern, Chicago’s last two goals have come from penalty kicks, so hopefully Toronto got that out of their system in KC.
Mike Magee’s goal-scoring threat is well-known, though his production has dropped this season. He still leads the team with seven goals – two of which have come in the last three matches – but is well shy of the 21 that saw him challenge Camilo for last season’s golden boot.
His last two goals have come from the penalty spot – beating Columbus’ Steve Clark and pouncing on the rebound after Luis Robles denied the initial attempt – but his finish against Kansas City was as clinical as one would expect from Magee:
That goal was crafted in large part by the hustle from Alex, who stripped Seth Sinovic and laid the pass in for Magee. Alex has been very lively, adjusting to MLS with increased physicality – he shouldered Montreal newcomer Ignacio Piatti to the ground last weekend in one display – and his ability to spot a pass can expose a defense as good as KC’s.
Cocis, while still adjusting to his teammate’s patterns, can thread a pass, laying in a lovely ball against Montreal for Magee, but the two were out of sync, with the striker not making the proper run.
Chicago can pick teams apart, if given the chance, but they can also look to spring counterattacks, stretching the defense to expose weaknesses in the opponent. Quincy Amarikwa even mentioned such a tactic in his preview of Saturday’s match and it was he who muscled past Andrew Farrell to score the winner in New England:
Magee provided the pass and Amarikwa did the rest. With Steven Caldwell reportedly fit for the match, he and Doneil Henry must stay alert to such threats. Larentowicz too can fling those sorts of passes, so Toronto’s midfield needs to be active, not giving Chicago time to spot those runs.
Harrison Shipp, as TFC learned in the last meeting, is a threat, cutting in from the outside to hit shots on goal. He also whips in a very nice corner kick – with Larentowicz, in particular, a target, scoring against Philadelphia:
Toronto will have to limit those chances – and mark much better than Philly did on that play.
Perhaps Chicago’s biggest weakness is ball movement across their back-line, prone to being a little too slow and the occasional missteps. Such flubs proved very costly against Kansas City, where Dom Dwyer stole onto a poor touch from Ianni to open the scoring:
While similar breakdowns led to all kinds of problems in San Jose.
What that performance against the Earthquakes betrayed was that if the opponent can get the Chicago back-line on their heels, chasing back, turned towards their own goal, they can be abused for a lack of pace, poor spacing, and unaware of danger.
Shea Salinas’ opener should not have been – there was plenty of cover after a long ball towards the corner sprung Salinas, but he was allowed to walk in to a shooting position to finish:
Yannick Djalo’s lovely chip for the fourth of the match, showed how fragile Chicago can be when caught playing a little too high:
TFC has both the speed – in the form of Dominic Oduro and Jackson – and the ability to pick those passes – in Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio, Gilberto, Luke Moore, and Jermain Defoe (not that all will be on the pitch at the same time) – to exploit that slow, high line.
Chicago will no doubt be wary of that threat and is unlikely to push that high, unless they fall behind and are forced to open up.
Another potentially advantageous idea for Toronto would be to look for space at the top of the box after pressing towards the end-line. As a consequence of that poor defensive awareness and an over eagerness to recover deep, Chicago left Montreal’s most dangerous player, Di Vaio, with space at the top of the box to nab the late winner:
Toronto, again, has the wide pace to drive into those areas, while Moore and Defoe are sharp enough to hang high for the pass – Bradley and Osorio should be willing to make those late runs to increase numbers in and around the area. Collen Warner should however stay back or look to pass – that said, he’ll probably score a screamer on Saturday.
Toronto and Chicago have met seventeen times in MLS play, TFC winning three, Chicago eight, and six ending in draws. Nine of those matches have been played in Toronto, where all three of TFC’s wins have come, while Chicago has won four and drawn two. Chicago are unbeaten in their last four trips to Toronto with two wins and two draws, stretching back to a 4-1 TFC win in 2010, when Nick LaBrocca, O’Brian White, and a Chad Barrett brace more than overpowered Jeff Larentowicz’ strike.
The two sides will meet once more this season, on September 13 in Chicago.
Continuing a rather disturbing trend, the match will again be refereed by an inexperienced official, as Daniel Fitzgerald takes control of his first MLS match – odd how that tends to happen when TFC plays. He does have plenty of matches under his belt in USL, NASL, WPS, and the US Open Cup, so that’s something. Fingers crossed.
Check out Chicago’s tactical preview of the match – unsurprisingly, they’ve predicted a 1-1 draw. And their local ESPN radio show, Chicago Fire Weekly, is worth a listen.
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